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Astronomers Assemble!

May 18th, 2012

Guess that superheroes are the main theme of this week, so I’ll go with it.

I saw someone on facebook asking what was the point of having a team of Avengers if Thor was around?  Or the way he put it, “If you have a god on your team, why do you need a team?”

Well, I think the answers are obvious, but I’ve been thinking about teamwork more generally as we’re starting a big team-oriented science project with summer students in a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d think about it some more.  Let’s start specific with the superhero thing and then get more general.

First, I think the Avengers movie makes a clear and easy case.  If you’ve got one god around, there might be two and the other one might be a bad guy.  In that case you might want some help to give your god the edge.  All you need are some other heroes powerful enough not to be casually dismissed by a god.

Back in the early Avengers comics, the writers helped us kids by having other characters rank the heroes, thinking things like, “Thor, our most powerful Avenger,” or “There goes Iron Man, our second-most powerful member.”  Although no one was ever like, “Hawkeye, our weakest member!”

Things are more complex in real life, and grew more complex in the comics and in the recent movie.  I believe the Black Widow’s worth is crystal clear when she interrogates Loki, and tricks the trickster, and when she’s the one in the key spot during the final battle to stop the alien invasion.  Not everything, even in a war, is about power.  It’s often about intelligence, strategy and tactics, and other things more than raw power.

Another thing that would happen in team-oriented comic books was that there’d be a problem requiring different heroes to pursue different goals simultaneously.  While there are some powers that let a superhero be in two places at once, Thor doesn’t have them.  Some problems are better solved with parallel processing, no matter how powerful your single computer.  If you want nine babies in nine months, you don’t leave it up to a single woman (not even the Octomom, Dr. Octopus’s sidekick, who only managed 8).

I’ll suggest one more advantage to a team: comrades.  Even if Thor could whip an army by himself, he seems like he enjoys it more when he does it with friends.

So, generalizing from what I’ve learned from the Avengers about the need for teams:

1. Sometimes the problems are too big, even for the best in the world to take on by themselves, and a team can succeed where any individual would fail.

2. Sometimes the skill set required to solve a problem is so diverse that no single person can possibly manage it alone, only a team.

3. No one can be in two (or more places) at the same time, and only a team has a chance for success.

4. Working as part of a team can be rewarding for its own sake, even if someone working alone can tackle the problem.

So in a couple of weeks when the summer students arrive, I will call them together with a hearty, “Astronomers Assemble!”

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